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Decatur City Commission discusses amendments to tree ordinance

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Decatur City Commission discusses amendments to tree ordinance

Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon and City Arborist Kay Evanovich presented the proposed revisions to the tree ordinance to the Decatur City Commission on Nov. 15. Photo by Zoe Seiler.

Decatur, GA — The city of Decatur has been in the process of amending its tree ordinance.

City staff gave the City Commission an overview of the changes during a work session on Monday, Nov. 15. Some changes include setting the tree canopy goal at 60%; no longer allowing discretionary tree removal; and setting canopy and conservation requirements for properties.

The intent of the tree ordinance is to encourage the conservation of existing trees and provide requirements for the protection, maintenance, renewal and increase in the tree canopy in the city, Decaturish previously reported.

The charge from the City Commission was for city staff to provide revisions to the existing ordinance that address a number of concerns people have expressed over the past couple of years, Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon previously said. The city has been working to strengthen the ordinance to protect more trees.

To view the city’s tree ordinance webpage, click here.

Community forestry management plan and current tree ordinance

The Community Forestry Management Plan was adopted in 2012 and gave an overall view of the city’s tree canopy.

When the plan was adopted, the study used three meter resolution for the overhead imagery to determine the tree canopy. In 1991, the canopy was measured at 50.9%. In 2005, the canopy decreased to 46.8%. The canopy was measured at 45.7% in 2008 and at 45.1% in 2010.

“The study only covered groups of trees. It didn’t cover freestanding, independent trees,” City Arborist Kay Evanovich said. “A lot of canopy was missed. At that point, they did a key recommendation for no net loss of tree canopy over the city. They also asked for an increase of canopy cover to 50% by 2037, because, keep in mind, with those issues I just talked about, they thought they were below 50%.”

The current tree ordinance was adopted in 2014. Some key provisions included setting the tree canopy cover as the key measurement. Commercial and high-density residential properties have to provide at least 45% canopy cover. Single-family residential and town home properties have to conserve at least 25% of its existing canopy.

In 2018, the City Commission asked city staff to address tree loss, which is primarily due to the development of single-family properties.

At the time, some priorities that were set included establishing a preliminary review with the city arborist; limiting on-site disturbance and grading; limited canopy coverage credit to on-site trees; increasing the minimum canopy that would be conserved; protecting landmark trees; increasing enforcement of the ordinance; and limiting discretionary tree removal.

Urban tree canopy assessment 

At the beginning of the tree ordinance amendment process, the city had an up-to-date urban tree canopy assessment that was completed in March by Georgia Tech and Interdev. Data was collected for 2009, 2013, 2017 and 2019.

“Generally speaking, the citywide canopy cover remained consistent at around 57% over that 10-year period,” Deputy City Manager Hugh Saxon said.

Additionally, low-density residential areas, which are single-family properties, generally have about 72% canopy cover.

“The findings that they developed was that land use drives canopy,” Saxon said. “Most of the canopy we have is on single-family properties. Low-density residential [has] over 70% [canopy coverage].”

The downtown area and the CSX rail corridor have the least tree canopy in the city. The city has seen fast growth of new plantings and street trees, as well as continued growth from established, older trees.

“Areas of loss [are] primarily single-family redevelopment,” Saxon said. “Town homes and commercial developments, we have infrastructure requirements. ”

Other areas of loss included expansion of existing institutional properties, discretionary tree removal and tree loss during storms.

The city does track tree information permits. According to the city, 335 trees were removed in 2017, 369 in 2018, 319 in 2019 and 466 in 2020. More frequent storms increased the number of people who wanted to remove trees, Evanovich said.

The city also tracks trees that were planted by the city, homeowners or through grants from Trees Atlanta. In 2017, 383 trees were planted. The number of trees planted increases almost every year. In 2018, 499 trees were planted, 376 were planted in 2019 and 520 in 2020. This data does not include trees that planted as part of development plans for projects.

“We’re doing a fair job trying to replace what is lost in the city of Decatur,” Evanovich said.

Recommended revisions to the tree ordinance

One major change under the proposed tree ordinance amendments is that property owners would be required to submit a tree removal permit to remove untreatably diseased, dead or hazardous trees. Discretionary tree removal, which is removing three trees in an 18-month period, would no longer be allowed.

Commercial, high-density residential and institutional properties would have to also submit a tree conservation plan and pay the canopy loss fee. On single-family residential properties, tree planting is required to maintain no net loss of tree canopy.

The proposed ordinance additionally sets a citywide tree canopy goal of 60%. The current ordinance does not set a tree canopy goal, but the goal in the community forestry management plan is 50% citywide. Some residents have been advocating for the tree canopy goal to be set at a minimum of 63%.

The city’s Environmental Sustainability Board discussed their final recommendations in October. The board suggested setting the canopy goal at 63%.

In October, the city hosted an open house at Legacy Park and about 52 people attended. The city has also been receiving comments through a dedicated email address for the tree ordinance.

Throughout the community feedback process, the top comment the city heard was that the tree canopy goal should be increased beyond the percentage that has been proposed, most commonly that suggestion was 70%, Lead for America Fellow David Nifong said.

“Our proposed goal of 60% would represent adding over 80 acres of canopy to what’s already here. It is higher than neighboring communities like Atlanta, Brookhaven, and Sandy Springs, if they even have an established canopy goal,” Nifong said. “A higher canopy percentage, like 70% …, may be difficult to achieve in an urban environment for a number of reasons, including limited root space and conflicting uses in parks, rights-of-way, like utilities, and a few other things.”

The current tree ordinance additionally provides a canopy credit, in which new trees receive credit for the tree canopy based on 100% of canopy cover potential at maturity.

The draft ordinance suggests partial canopy credit would be given based on the potential size of trees at maturity. New large trees receive partial credit for tree canopy based on 50% of canopy cover potential at maturity. Medium trees receive 75% credit, and small and tiny trees receive full credit.

The ESB recommended that 50% canopy credit be given based on the potential at maturity for all newly planted trees.

The draft ordinance also recommends a tree rating system in which trees would be categorized as poor, fair, good or high. Trees rated poor or that are covered in invasives would not get canopy credit.

The ordinance also sets canopy cover requirements and conservation goals for various properties. A minimum 60% canopy cover would be required for single-family residential properties, and 75% of the existing fair- or better-rated trees would have to be conserved.

On high-density residential and institutional properties, a minimum of 45% canopy cover would be required, and 50% of the existing canopy would have to be conserved. Commercial properties would also be required to have at least 45% canopy cover, which the ESB recommended should be increased to 50%.

Exceptions could be permitted for affordable housing with approval from the City Commission.

“This is a general statement. You could approach that either on an ad hoc basis and consider every application individually as they came up. Or we could develop guidelines that you would approve, where a person applying for an exception for affordable housing, if they met the guidelines, they’d get it,” Saxon said. “By that, we mean bona fide affordable housing. Something that would be long term and based on income.”

The ESB suggested that an exception for affordable housing should only be considered when a development exceeds the requirements of the city’s inclusionary zoning ordinance.

The City Commission anticipates adopting the updated tree ordinance at the next meeting on Monday, Dec. 6.

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